Volunteer computing, engagement and enthusiasm

This post is about perceptions, engagement and the important of ‘participant-observation‘ approach in citizen science research.IBM World Community Grid

It start with a perception about volunteer computing. The act of participating in scientific project by downloading and installing software that will utilise unused processing cycles of your computer is, for me, part of citizen science. However, in different talks and conversations I have noticed many people dismiss it as ‘not real citizen science’. I suspect that this is because of the assumption that the engagement of the participant is very low – just downloading a piece of software and not much beyond.

Until few weeks ago, I was arguing that there are many participants who are much more engaged – joining teams, helping others, attending webinars – and quietly accepting that it might be difficult to justify that people who ‘just download software’ are active citizen scientists.

Until this:

A bit of background – the day after the first Citizen Cyberscience Summit in 2010, I’ve joined IBM World Community Grid, as a way to experience volunteer computing on my work desktop, laptops, and later on my smartphone, while contributing the unused processing cycles to scientific projects. Out of over 378,000 participants in the project, I’m in the long tail – ranking 20,585. My top contributions are for FightAIDS@Home and Computing for Clean Water.

I notice the screen saver on my computers, and pleased with seeing the IBM World Community Grid on my smartphone in the morning, knowing that it used the time since it was fully charged for some processing. I also noticed it when I reinstall a computer, or get a new one, and remember that I need to set it going. I don’t check my ranking, and I don’t log-in more than twice a year to adjust the projects that I’m contributing to. So all in all, I self-diagnosed myself to be a passive contributor in volunteer computing.

But then came the downtime of the project on the 28th February. There was an advanced message, but I’ve missed it. So looking at my computer during the afternoon of the day, I’ve noticed a message ‘No Work Available to Process’. After a while, it bothered me enough to go on and check the state of processing on the smartphone, which also didn’t process anything. Short while after that, I was searching the internet to find out what is going on with the system, and after discovering that the main site was down, I continued to look around until I found the twitter message above. Even after discovering that it is all planned, I couldn’t stop looking at the screen saver from time to time, and was relieved when processing resumed.

What surprised me about this episode was how much I cared about it. The lack of processing annoyed me  enough to spend over half an hour on discovering the reason. From the work of Hilary Geoghagen, I know about technology enthusiasm, but I didn’t expected that I would care about downtime the way I did.

This changed my view on volunteer computing – there must be more people that are engaged in a project and care about it than what usually is perceived. This is expressed in the survey the IBM run in 2013 when 15,627 people cared enough about the World Community Grid project to complete a survey. I guess that I’m not alone…

The final note is about the importance of ‘participant-observation‘. As a researcher, participatory action research is a core methodology that I’ve been using for a long while, and I advocated it to others, for example as a necessary research method for those who are researching OpenStreetMap. Participant-observation require you to get a deeper understanding about the topic that you are researching by actively participating in it, not just analysing interviews or statistics about participation. The episode above provide for me a demonstration for the importance of this methodology. For over 4 years, my participation in volunteer computing was peripheral, but eventually, it provided me with an insight that is important to my understanding of the topic and the emotional attachment of those who are participating in it.


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